For Fleeing Syrians, Jordan Offers Bare-Bones Refuge

If you’re trying to escape the turmoil in Syria for the calm in Jordan, you have two choices.

You can go the legal way. Just get in a car and try to drive across the border. But that’s not very easy these days. The Syrian government isn’t letting many people out.

Or you can try the illegal way. Wait until nightfall, climb through a barbed-wire fence. It sounds dodgy, but if you make it over, you’ll actually be welcomed by the Jordanian army. They’ll take your name, give you a drink of water, let you rest.

After that, though, you’re on your own. You might end up in an apartment building that’s become a kind of holding pen for hundreds of Syrians near the border.

About 20 men are staying in one room of the run-down building. They all came from the same village in southern Syria. They don’t want the name revealed, because they are afraid the Syrian government might find out they’ve escaped and punish their families back home.

A Familiar Story

Their story is similar to many others who have fled the troubled country. About a month ago, a group of soldiers from their village defected from the Syrian army, refusing to fight for the government. They came back home and started defending their village against security forces, who were, according to these men, arresting and torturing anyone suspected of opposing the government.

One man who wanted to be identified only as Abu Ammar says defectors managed to take control the village for about 15 days. Then the army stormed it with tanks and mortars. And some of the men fled here.

The only assistance the men can get right now is at a private Islamic charity. Recent arrivals crowd around the bearded director of the charity. He tells the men he has no cash to help with the rent, but he can provide bags of food.

This is the problem for refugees in Jordan. On the one hand, Jordan is more open to new arrivals than any other country that borders Syria. Yet the government doesn’t have much to offer.

Jordan is already a country of refugees. It has hosted Palestinian refugees for decades. And hundreds of thousands of Iraqis came here after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Jordan calls them guests and allows them to go to government schools and hospitals for free.

But its resources are limited.

Calls For Help

Andrew Harper, who heads the Jordan office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says the U.S. and other countries should provide assistance.

“Jordan can only do so much. Jordan suffers from a lack of infrastructure, it has a very young population, it doesn’t have very much water,” he says. “I spoke to some Jordanians who basically had their own family, and they also had two other families there. And they’re saying, ‘We’re doing what we need to do, because we should do this.’ But there’s only so long they can do this.”

Jordanian analyst Yasar Qatarneh says regardless of whether it gets international assistance, Jordan has to walk a fine line with its stance on Syria.

No one is sure what will happen in Syria. Will Assad’s government survive or fall? And even if it does fall, he says Jordan’s rulers don’t want to see their neighbor be ruled by Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We cannot remain silent to what our brothers in Syria are facing under the Assad regime, yet at the same time we don’t want to replace Assad’s regime to have a puppet regime in the hands of the Muslim Brothers,” Qatarneh said.

Jordan has its own outspoken branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, though they have not engaged in violence. While the Syrian opposition is not currently dominated by Islamist parties, Qatarneh says Jordan, like all countries with interests in what happens in Syria, is planning for all possibilities.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.